Summary: One of the most hotly debated issues among the Potter fandom is the role and character of Severus Snape, a man who treated Harry abysmally for six years, only to be exonerated in a final revelation in Deathly Hallows. However, I cannot help but wonder if a similar overhaul is long due for the Dursleys.
The Dursleys are not well-liked by the Potter fandom: they are representative of the Muggle world which holds Harry back; the home from which Hogwarts is a glorious escape; the abuse he suffers in his early years. But whilst in the case of Snape, a great many people leap to his defence and try to exonerate and explain his actions once they realise it was all done for Harry's own good, the Dursleys are left to languish in this miserable reputation. I would like to question why.
The most obvious reason for Snape's redemption is the danger he risked to keep Harry safe. Firstly, can anyone deny that the Dursleys were putting themselves in an incredibly vulnerable position by protecting Harry? While they could not have been harmed as he was growing up - or else, clearly, Voldemort would have captured or killed them even if he could not touch Harry - there is certainly no way they could have guaranteed their safety after he turned seventeen. We know, now, that the Order of the Phoenix steps in to save them, but the Dursleys couldn't possibly have known that all those years. As far as they knew, Harry would leave them wide open to an attack from Death Eaters after he left. We also shouldn't ignore that after the explanation in Order of the Phoenix, when Vernon realises the full extent of the danger in which they have been, Petunia steps in to stop him throwing Harry out of the house. One could, of course, say that Vernon is an awful person and a terrible guardian for even suggesting that Harry leave; but in the midst of panic and bluster, after such a horrifying revelation, who can say that the same thought would not have crossed their minds? And even after that, the Dursleys continued to harbour him for a further two years. Surely this should be, if not wholly congratulated, at least acknowledged? In the face of such an awful, unknown threat, they continued to allow Harry into their home. And even if Vernon didn't quite understand the extent of the danger, we can say that Petunia most certainly did.
One must, of course, consider the incentive for this. It is true, certainly, that the Dursleys did not keep Harry in their home purely for his own good. They feared the wrath of Dumbledore if they did not - and, later, could possibly have seen him as a shield against Voldemort, a wizard who could defend them if he were to show up. However, did Snape defend Harry purely out of altruism? Of course not. He defended Harry for his own gratification, in the memory of Lily, because he could not bear to see her son killed. He defended Harry because he feared the emotional repercussions that he would impose upon himself if he didn't; the Dursleys defended him because they feared retribution. In the end, neither did it solely for Harry's own good, and whilst this does not diminish the act, it is another place in which Snape's sacrifice can hardly be said to be greater or more moral than that of the Dursleys.
Now, one could argue that Snape was in a much greater amount of danger than the Dursleys. If the Dursleys did not defend Harry, Dumbledore would surely not torture or murder them, whereas Snape was dealing with one of the most dangerous wizards ever known. However, not only is it true that the Dursleys were also facing the wrath of Voldemort, if indirectly, but Snape would have been in that danger had he tried to save Harry or not. We see Voldemort murder him without even knowing about his actions to save Harry; we see the Dark Lord torture and kill many people, on countless occasions, simply because they are there, or for trivial wrongdoings. Snape would have been slightly defended by his status as right-hand man, but we see that even that, in the end, doesn't help him. Snape was facing this danger from the moment he affiliated himself with Voldemort, NOT from the moment he started defending Harry. And even if Voldemort had found out, what would he have done? Killed Snape, probably. He may have tortured him a little first, but, considering that Voldemort's probably tortured every one of his followers at least once or twice, that does not increase the risk that Snape was running by defending Harry. I am not trying to trivialise torture or suffering here, but rather saying that there is not a lot Voldemort could have done to him that he hasn't (or may have) already done.
Similarly, whilst Snape is an incredibly talented, adept wizard, the Dursleys, as magic-fearing Muggles, are in an extremely vulnerable position. Snape could certainly have defended himself against Death Eaters, maybe even held his own for a while against Voldemort; the Dursleys would have died instantly. Before the Order of the Phoenix involved themselves in the Dursleys' protection, they were completely devoid of protection. Harry, an underage wizard who has never been trained in combative magic, would hardly have been any use; and besides, it's likely that Voldemort would have attacked when Harry was at school. Snape was cunning and skilled enough that he could have done something to defend himself if the danger he feared had come to fruition; the Dursleys had nothing, and still they had Harry in their home. That is an incredible risk to take; it is easy to forget, considering that they were chivvied away safely at the start of Deathly Hallows, how little defence they would otherwise have had. And to carry that fear for seventeen years, that the wizard who killed Harry's parents may well come for Harry and - by extension - themselves, and still to keep him in their home, is something that should not be ignored.
I believe the chief reason that these acts on the part of the Dursleys are ignored is twofold: firstly, giving someone a room in your house doesn't seem like that much of a sacrifice; it seems unremarkable, even if we know it to be otherwise. Secondly, they didn't treat him very nicely. In fact, they treated him awfully; as Dumbledore put it (Half-Blood Prince, page 57), "He has known nothing but neglect and often cruelty at your hands". They treated him like a burden, or a dog, or a servant; something slightly less than human which causes nothing but inconvenience to them. This is not okay, and I will not try to defend this. However, I think I can at least explain it. The Dursleys fear abnormality, and magic above all else. That the world should not be exactly 'right' or 'normal' is their greatest nightmare, and Harry is representative of that. When one has a particular fear, it is easy to choose one person as a representation of the thing you fear and to loathe them for it; it would have been easier for the Dursleys to neglect and hate Harry, because he was under their control, than to come to terms with their fear of magic and the magical world. In mistreating Harry, they would have felt that they were shunning the magical world. In fact, they even try to convince themselves that it's for his own good: "the world's better off without [wizards] in my opinion" (Philosopher's Stone, page 46). Imagine your worst fear: now imagine being forced to live with it, or someone who is the representation of it. They would always be there, a constant reminder of the thing you abhor and fear above all else. Although I imagine most of you would never go to the extent that the Dursleys do, it does help us to understand why the Dursleys - and in particular, Vernon - treat Harry so badly. This in no way makes it alright to treat Harry the way they do, but we must at least try to understand rather than brush it off as them just being nasty people, when we as a fandom expend so much time and energy in trying to explain Snape's character. We must also remember that Snape was by no means an angel; he treated Harry, and all the students around him, like filth. Whilst we have cited his abusive childhood as a reason for this, we mustn't then ignore the Dursleys' incentives.
Finally, let us remember that at least one of the Dursleys redeems himself slightly. Dudley tells Harry that "I don't think youâre a waste of space" (Deathly Hallows, page 39). Perhaps this does not seem like much, but, as Harry puts it, âcoming from Dudley that's like 'I love you'" (Deathly Hallows, page 39). It must have required an immense amount of courage, considering the amount of pride and defensiveness Dudley exhibits over the years, for him to say that, and, whilst it's not exactly risking death by snake, it's still a gesture which should be acknowledged and appreciated. And whilst Vernon doesn't seem to care what happens to Harry ("He's off with some of your lot, isn't he?" (Deathly Hallows, page 38)), Dudley does seem to finally worry about Harry's wellbeing: "But where's he going to go?" (Deathly Hallows, page 38). So it would seem that whilst Vernon has had too long to build up his bigotry and belligerence, Dudley is not entirely beyond redemption.
I ask not that we justify those years of abuse, or that we try to turn the Dursleys into ridiculously overblown romantic heroes like Snapeâs image has suffered; only that we try to understand why they acted the way they did, and acknowledge that they, like Snape, made sacrifices for Harry's sake. They deserve a little recognition, at least.